YEM Author Interview: Stephan Lee explains how he put his own real-life fears and insecurities into his book K-POP Revolution

Stephan Lee is the author of K-Pop Revolution. K-Pop Revolution is the sequel to the acclaimed K-Pop Confidential. The book follows Candace Park, who thought that debuting in a K-pop band was the finish line, but it was only the beginning. Because now it’s not only Candace’s company judging her―it’s the entire world. YEM was able to speak with Stephan about what he loves about K-Pop, his favorite quotes from K-Pop Revolution, and his hopes for the future.

Young Entertainment Mag: When did you know that you wanted to become a writer?

Stephan Lee: Honestly, forever! When I was little, it never occurred to me that there were people who wouldn’t want to be an author. Whenever there was a creative writing assignment, I always overachieved. In first grade, I wrote and illustrated a story about a boy who visited an alien named Rolly on a peppermint planet and rode a slide back down to earth, and my teacher Mrs. Crawford read it out loud. In fourth grade, we had to write a story about turkeys, and I made mine into a ten-page typed epic about turkeys escaping being cooked inspired by the novels of Brian Jacques, and there was even some tragedy — one of the turkeys gave his life and got trapped in an oven, and there was a funeral and everything. It got deep!

YEM: Your new book K-Pop Revolution is out now. What can you tell us about it?

Stephan: I wrote K-POP REVOLUTION so you could understand it without reading K-POP CONFIDENTIAL first, but it’s a true sequel, so it definitely helps to start with Book One! K-POP REVOLUTION begins right where the first book ends. The first book was all about Candace Park, a Korean American girl, as she struggles to survive the notoriously tough K-pop “trainee” process — seriously, it’s like a real-life Hunger Games! Now the second book is all about what happens when you’re actually chosen for a K-pop group, and the stakes are even higher and the pressure, schedule, and fame are overwhelming. It’s a very different experience of celebrity than what we see in America, so it’s endlessly fascinating!

YEM: What is it about K-Pop that you love so much?

Stephan: The innovation and the heart that goes into it! Korea is extremely proud of its culture, and they’re very, very passionate about sharing it with the world. The fact that BTS and BLACKPINK are topping charts around the world and SQUID GAME was Netflix’s biggest show ever is not an accident. Korea wants to show the world its heart and spirit through its storytelling and art, so nothing in K-pop is half-assed, and it shows in the quality and originality and the sincerity of the artists themselves.

YEM: How does your book K-Pop Revolution differ from K-Pop Confidential?

Stephan: The scope is so much bigger, and you get much deeper into some characters you met in the first book, and many of them will surprise you.

If the main theme of the K-POP CONFIDENTIAL was gaining the courage to speak out against mistreatment and corruption, even if it might cost you your dream, K-POP REVOLUTION is putting action behind those words, which is so much harder and comes with so many more consequences.

YEM: What do you hope readers take away from reading your books?

Stephan: Everything’s so difficult right now. It’s so hard just to attain basic needs in the world, let alone get ahead, especially for young people. In a way, both books are the story of generational conflict: A system has been set up by older people, with rules and expectations that maybe don’t make sense anymore, yet young people are the ones who are forced to work within it. It was important to me to make Candace’s story relatable to anyone reading it, even if the idea of entering a K-POP training facility is totally foreign to you, as it is to most people!

Aside from all the glamor and pressure, I think both books will be relatable, whether you’re applying to college, training for competitive sports, entering the workforce, or trying to publish a novel. Candace is part of a generation that is brave enough to reject these rules like no other that came before, but of course, doing so means drawing a target on your back. I thought the K-POP world was the perfect metaphor for this whole struggle that young people all over the world are engaged in.

YEM: Do you take any inspiration from your real life and put it into your books?

Stephan: While I was writing K-POP Revolution, I was actually going through a period of intense self- doubt, and for the longest time, I struggled. K-POP Confidential, which was my first novel, had just come out during the middle of the pandemic, and it was successful enough and people really liked it, but I was still so hard on myself. I considered anything with the release of my first book that didn’t go as planned a total failure, and I really internalized whatever criticism I did get. I found myself trying to write the sequel as criticism-proof, or writing it in a way that I thought would maximize its appeal, and of course, that kind of cautiousness doesn’t lead to honest or authentic writing, so I got stuck. This sounds cheesy, but what really “unlocked” the book for me was trying to channel Candace herself — in spite of all the fear of what people might say, expressing what you want to say in an honest, authentic way. Instead of trying to be perfect, I put so many of my own real-life fears and insecurities into the final draft of K-POP Revolution, and I think that made the book come alive.

YEM: What is some advice you have for someone who wants to become a writer?

Stephan: Embrace the process, try your best not to compare yourself to others, and don’t think too much about the end result. Also, when it comes to “rituals,” I don’t think you need to overthink them. Just think about what puts you in a balanced, relaxed mood in general, and that’s what you need to do to get ready to write.

YEM: What is your favorite scene or quote that you have written?

Stephan: My favorite quotes from K-POP REVOLUTION:

“No one ever tells you how much scarier it is to win than to lose.”

“True genius is knowing what you’re passionate about and being brave enough to not let anyone waste your time on anything else.”

YEM: What do you hope to have achieved five years into the future?

Stephan: I hope to have published my first adult novel (which I’ve been working on foreverrrrrr) and a book of essays and to be a voice for queer Asian American representation in pop culture.

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